A color study of Kim’s outfit for Dark Science. Does she look like a supervillain yet?
I make a comic called Dresden Codak. This is a blog filled with drawings, ramblings and a splash of art theory.
It starts with a rough outline. For Dark Science I have a basic script and story outline, and I decided how much of that script can/should fit onto a standard page. From there I start working out what I needed to draw.
With this page I started with sketching Nephilopolis. Having written the story ahead of time, I already had a rough idea of what I wanted, but not the details. I started by going back to my first sketch of the island I did months ago (before I’d finished the plot).
A very rough idea at this point. Once I got to this page in the story and actually solidified the notes about the setting, I began fleshing it out:
Here I’m just sketching out possible elements. I wanted to make the head clearly recognizable, and also for the giant’s shapes to contrast clearly with the shapes of the island. At this stage the design was still fairly symmetrical. After I was comfortable with the basic idea, I set the giant at an angle to the island and worked on more details:
Although at this point the design wasn’t “finished,” but it was enough to get started on thumbnailing the comic:
Using a standard hard round brush in Photoshop, I quickly and roughly start working on the basic layout of the page. From the “script” I have directions as to what needs to happen in the scene, but I don’t worry about the specifics of the dialog until later, as it will depend on how the images end up shaping.
Using a textured brush that looks a bit like pencil (there’s no need for this, just a personal preference), I start “pencilling” the page, solidifying the forms and rendering all the details that I don’t want to forget about when I start to color. With the Nephilopolis island I left things rougher, as I know from experience with landscapes that I end up improvising a lot when I start painting. By contrast, Kimiko and the stranger are tightly rendered, as they’ve already been fully designed and introduced in previous pages.
I’ll use a specific section to illustrate the steps I normally take with painting.
Using a round hard brush with pressure sensitivity controlling both opacity and size, I draw out the basic outlines. Even though often these outlines won’t be visible, it’s a good starting point for blocking in colors for the next step and ensuring the edges of the figure are smooth. I only generally use this step for figures, as I tend to give them sharper edges so they’ll pop out a bit.
Underneath the lines layer I start filling in the basic colors. I’m not concerned with detailed shadows and lighting just yet, only making sure the general colors are where they need to be. At this point I’m working with four layers: one set of lines & colors that go underneath the black borders (the top half) and one set that go on top of the borders (bottom half).
From here I flatten the color layers with their respective line layers and, with a round brush set to opacity sensitivity (no size sensitivity), I begin painting. As you can see, some of the lines I’ve left and some I’ve removed; it all depends on what’s needed. Also note that this actually looks slightly different from the “finished” torso in the comic, as I went back a couple times and tweaked some details. No piece of the comic is totally finished until everything is finished.
With this page I started with the “known” elements (Kimiko, the stranger and the train car all had set designs and shapes) and worked my way to the “unknown” (the island). I dropped in a basic filler for the sky and started to think about the tonal values.
For a very complex image that you haven’t painted before, it’s easy to jump into it with lots of colors, guns blazing, but you run the risk of losing appropriate contrast and overworking key areas. For these situations I prefer to make a grayscale “underpainting,” where I work out the appropriate tones. I don’t allow myself to blend anything or use colors at this point. Once I’m satisfied with the basic lighting, I move on to color selection.
Here I’ve begun testing colors. I decided at this point to remove some of the border lines. I found them to be distracting as I started to have a better view of the composition. I’ve also moved the robot portions to their own layer and hidden it for the time being, letting me focus on color selection and rendering of the rock and island portions.
Rendering the robot portions begins, leaving the details of the top portion sparse for now, as it will be mostly covered by the city portion.
Toying around with the colors of the cityscape. Not concerned with details yet.
Most of the city is rendered at this point. I’m leaving the robot’s arm until later, as I’m not satisfied with how it’s playing against the rest of the picture.
Nearing completion. Fleshed out the clouds and added some contrast. Still toying with the arm.
Finished up the arm, and added the final text bubbles. Done!
Panels are useful, so useful that we start to believe that they’re an essential element of comicking, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Panels are merely a means to an end, a straightforward way of conveying a visual narrative; they enforce a clear sequence of images with dividing lines. This is fine, but if we rely on this formula too often the sequence can get stale, and we tend to miss more exciting opportunities. Complex layouts are good for the brain: if done well, they excite the reader and allow for a greater vocabulary of techniques to get your point across.
Here’s a basic guide to some nontraditional techniques, in order of difficulty.
This should really be in every cartoonist’s armament. Panels can take any shape you want. So long as the content is clear and readable, anything goes. For example, you can use it to insert a less-imposing panel into a sequence to let the reader know what’s going on somewhere else:
You can use the silhouettes of other images to create a different mood, or to imply the contents of an environment without drawing them:
Or shape panels to indicate where a character or object is in a composition:
Or just reshape them for stylistic purposes:
Like any tool, it shouldn’t be overused. Often, it’s good to insert irregular panel shapes within a sequence of rectangular panels to emphasize a contrast. All the techniques used to emphasize focal points and lines of action can actually be applied to the panels themselves, so never underestimate their significance.
Having an image breaking out of a panel onto another panel is an excellent way to draw attention to that image. It holds the reader’s focus, and also can be combined with other advanced techniques for some really creative compositions. This is another skill that cartoonists of all kinds can utilize.
The risk is low for this, so long as it isn’t overused. The results can be very effective.
(Aside being the greatest webcomic of all time, A Lesson is Learned is also especially good at this technique). This is a complex approach, but the rewards far outweigh the difficulty. The comic can take on a very organic, etherial quality where the composition of the images takes over entirely. This can leave the reader vulnerable, as you take away the scaffolding of the narrative and the tempo becomes looser as more is left up to the reader. Because the reader can lose their footing, it’s possible to deliver powerful emotional moments, catching them off-guard.
It’s important to note that all the standard composition elements must still be present. If anything, they become more indispensable, as the challenge of directing the narrative becomes more intense:
You force them to think on their feet, but also allow them to wander a bit in the image. This doesn’t mean for a second, however, that panel-free comics can’t be exciting, adventurous and funny:
Also, switching from no panels to panels and vice-versa is a useful way to emphasize a scene or mood change in a story. In this example, Kimiko hooks herself up to a machine and goes from her panel-free scene to a strictly paneled virtual world inside her computer:
Just because comics are visual narratives doesn’t mean the narrative has to move in a straight line. Unlike films, which are inherently one-dimensional in their direction (one frame after the other), comics have two dimensions within which to play, and this opens up lots of fun opportunities for conveying information.
In the above image, the “boss” character hangs himself, but his hanged body doesn’t occupy one particular panel. It overlaps several, and different parts of the body are interacting in different scenes. It also dominates the entire page as a whole, making it clear what the most powerful image of the composition is:
We’re not limited to a single image either. Entire panel sequences can run parallel, indicating that two events are happening simultaneously:
It’s also possible to tie in two simultaneous sequences to indicate where they specifically meet:
In the above image, the first and last panels illustrate the same images, but from different distances. They serve to provide continuity to the sequence. The man realizes his sight has returned while the other Time Travelers are speaking with Dmitri. Instead of splicing these images in a single line like in film, we simply line up the two sequences side-by side.
It’s possible to successfully change the comics flow from "left to right" to "right to left," but I’m going to warn you: this is Dark Side stuff, used only when absolutely necessary and when you’re absolutely sure you can pull it off. Here’s the best example I know:
In the second row, instead of moving back to the left side, the composition keeps us on the right, takes us down the waterfall and moves us from right to left back to the other side. This isn’t a superflous technique: it accentuates the character’s winding path and journey into the underworld:
How does it get away with this? By incorporating techniques we already know, guiding us in the correct direction. Let’s break them down:
When changing the direction of the comic’s flow, it’s essential to really guide the reader by the hand, otherwise you run the risk of confusing them or losing their attention entirely. I’ll use one of my own (very old) comics as an example of flow-reversing executed poorly:
There’s not enough visual reinforcement of the flow change here. A couple things are done right: Kimiko is facing in the direction I want the reader to now go, but the slight panel overlap isn’t enough to make this clear. Also, something as pivotal as a visual punchline like this is probably best left to a regular panel arrangement.
So there you have it. This is by no means a comprehensive list of advanced layout techniques, just a guide to the beginnings of what’s possible. These techniques open up all sorts of styles and abilities, and greatly expand a cartoonist’s visual vocabulary.
I can’t stress reading A Lesson is Learned enough. Although the comic ended a few years ago, its artist David Hellman has worked on some other projects, like the hit game Braid, and its author Dale Beran has an excellent new comic called The Nerds of Paradise.
Marshall McLuhan coined the famous phrase “the medium is the message,” meaning that the information within a medium and the medium itself are irrevocably intertwined. How the viewer/reader/etc. receives the information is part of the information itself. Different media generate different experiences. Even reading a sentence on a piece of paper activates a different part of the brain than having someone read that same sentence to you. From the standpoint of an artist, how we convey “content” is not separate from content itself. It’s all content. Content is what we present to the readers.
The reason I bring this up is that there’s often an attitude amongst certain creators that the visuals “don’t matter” as much in comics, citing that elaborate visuals can and often distract from the “content,” which they see as the story, text or joke. This is a misinterpretation of the medium (as described above), but it also makes the mistake of conflating elaborate with effective. Elaborate visuals are not always the same as effective visuals. Effective visuals are essential to comics, while elaborate visuals depend on context and personal style. As such, the comic artist is obligated to show information via the visual narrative as effectively as possible, rather than tell the reader through excessive text or other misplaced expositional devices.
Don’t be fooled by the stickmen: Pictures for Sad Children is one of the most visually sophisticated webcomics ever. Its visuals are anything but elaborate, but they are effective, and employ many of the essential visual tools previously mentioned in this blog. When I say “effective” I specifically mean it efficiently conveys the vital information and intended mood. Despite the minimalism posing and virtual lack of facial expressions, the characters have a great deal of emotion coming out, and it’s largely because of the expert blocking and layouts. Let’s take a closer look at the above comic:
There are a lot of advanced techniques being used here. In particular there’s an aggressive use of negative space as an active player in the action, as well as tactful employment of “pauses,” which are panels that are mainly used to better define the pace of the reading. This helps clarify and emphasize other panels, similar to how (in the last article) negative space can be used to separate two focal points. The majority of information given to us is not spoken by a character, but rather implied via the visuals. Imagine how dull this strip would be if it was reduced to a repeating flat shot of three characters delivering the same lines.
Johnny Wander, while more realistic in its renderings than PFSC, is still fairly minimal with regards to visuals without losing any effectiveness. There’s a masterful establishment of rhythm and tempo in the above page, with very clear high’s and low’s with regards to panel intensity. There’s a buildup to the punch that’s very clearly executed.
Straight text writing is largely geared toward conjuring an image in the mind of the reader in the absence of literal images. Comics use both, and as a consequence an overuse of text ends up competing with the images rather than working with them. Because comics are a visual narrative above all else, it’s important, when laying out a comic, that one considers the visuals first and the details of the text second. The literal text should never lead the images, because one runs the risk of telling the audience rather than showing them. With comics, text augments the image, not the other way round. Remember, comics are the art of compression. They are not “picture books.”
Nick Gurewitch describes his cartooning process as trying to say as much as he can with images, and only then adding dialog when the images are insufficient at completing the idea. He’s also famously said that humor is simply tragedy sped up, which is one reason comics are so well suited for comedy in the first place. They can set lead us one way and pull the rug out from under us in such a brief duration. So much information is shown to us in a brief instant:
It’s a poor strategy to view pictures and words as ratios to be managed in a comic. They are not competing elements, but part of one tool: the visual narrative. If you strip away the visual language you’re just telling someone an idea; you’ve altered the context and changed the content. ”Content” is not a separate concept that transcends the execution of that concept, but an integral part of the product as a whole. In other words, “the medium is the message.”
In painting and general illustration, there are some basics everyone should know about composition. Chief amongst these is the importance of a focal point. A focal point is the primary focus of a picture, whether it’s a person, object or simply an abstract portion of the image. Humans have binocular, mammalian vision and our action of “looking” instinctively relies on focusing, not just seeing. Unless we’re looking at a magic eye 3D image, our eyes are only really comfortable with an image that has a clear focal point. Once that’s clear, we allow our eyes to wander and take in the other details.
Achieving a solid focal point isn’t terribly difficult. A few tools that will help are contrast (overall the most indispensable):
Complementary Colors (a subset of contrast):
And overall structure:
However, these are the conventions of painting and illustration, which have somewhat different goals from comics. Comics, even in a single panel, employ the art of the visual narrative, which means there are unique demands for guiding the reader’s eye. Having a single focal point can be enough for some panels or images, but oftentimes it’s necessary for comics to employ multiple focal points in a single image to not only draw the eye in a meaningful, sequential fashion but also to heighten the reader’s excitement and immersion in the story.
"Sequential art" doesn’t just refer to a sequence of panels, individual images also lead the eye in a sequential manner. There is a hierarchy of focal points that guide the reader through the visual narrative. In the above panel from Family Man, we see the above “focal point” tools being used to create a nice frame, but from there the composition is divided further, first focusing on the man, and then to the woman. A clear hierarchy within the visual sequence is established with some more advanced techniques.
Gazes moving from left to right:
In Western comics, panels and text are read from left to right, so it’s in the best interest of the artist to take advantage of this natural habit of the reader’s eye. Unless forced to do otherwise, the reader is going to look at the top left corner of a comic image and move to the right. A reader will also instinctively look in the direction a character is looking, and in this panel the artist is taking advantage of both of these habits. We start on the man, who is looking at the woman, upon whom we then focus.
There’s a frame created by the books and bookshelf that keeps the eye from drifting downward. This reinforces the previous technique of moving the eye from left to right. (Notice too the slight dip in books near the woman’s hand, drawing the eye to a third and softer focal point, ie: the letter).
Soft division through negative space:
What largely separates the two focal points is a low detail negative space, where the contrast is low and the eye doesn’t linger. It also creates a 3D triangle of sorts: if we were shooting lasers out of our eyes, they would start at the man, ricochet off the wall and hit the woman.
Primary and secondary contrast levels:
It’s subtle, but the values surrounding the man are more contrasted than the woman. This largely serves to reinforce the tools previously mentioned.
These types of techniques are also prevalent in the first image I showed, with Kimiko being the primary focus and her bag the secondary focus:
As you can see, the tools needed are slightly different, partially because of the larger colors used and other compositional requirements (for example, the image with Kimiko has a more complicated frame because it uses a 3-point perspective instead of 1). The point to take home is that there’s no one way to make this work; you may use some of these tools and not others, depending on what the image requires. Additionally, it should be noted we’re not limited to two focal points. Depending on the comic, there could be more. It all depends on what the visual narrative requires.
This is the key: no matter what the style, comics are a visual narrative. If we establish a clear sequence of visual relevance, the reader’s eye is active and their mind is engaged. Pull them into your world and keep them for a while.
Most people understand the importance of facial expressions in cartooning, but if there’s anything that’s routinely neglected, it’s hands. It’s a shame too, since hands are the second thing we instinctively look at when a person is speaking to us. We use our hands in a variety of ways to accentuate our point; if we actively restrict ourselves from gesturing at all, natural speech actually become rather difficult. This goes beyond dialogue, too: hand gestures lead us to what’s important, and they’re the most frequent body part to indicate action and interaction with the environment, as well as other characters. Hands dominate the focus on what’s important in a scene, and to neglect this is to neglect a pivotal tool in storytelling.
The Meek is an excellent example of a webcomic that knows how to use hands. They’re not just used to accentuate a gesture or mood, but different characters have different habits of gestures, just like real life people. Whether it’s a subtle gesture (indicating a sort of royal calm) like above, or an indication of surprise or bewilderment:
An innocent investigation:
Or visible frustration:
In the above image, we go from the girl’s hands centered in the frame, almost mirrored. It keeps the focus dead center and the composition flat. Then the “camera” shifts to the left, bringing us out of that moment of mental processing and onto the action. Her right hand gestures outward, and we instinctively want to follow it to the next scene, whatever that may be.
Enrique Fernandez does an especially good job of hand interaction with other objects and faces. They allow us to focus on what’s most important in a scene. Guiding the eye is a central part of comic art, and hands are an efficient way to achieve this.
Despite being lavishly detailed, there’s never any confusion as to what the focal point is in each panel. If the reader has to try too hard to figure out what’s important, they lose interest in the visual path of the image and may lose interest in the comic altogether.
Hands need not be realistic or detailed to achieve their purpose. Octopus Pie is a very “cartoony” comic, but there’s an economy of movement and composition in every panel to get the main point across. Hands are not afraid to touch objects and gesture appropriately. There’s a definite language to the characters’ gestures as well, and no two characters use their hands the same way.
Hark, a Vagrant is an even more extreme example. There’s really very little realism to the forms in general, especially the hands, but still they are extremely expressive and clearly readable. There’s never any confusion as to how a character is behaving or feeling.
In short, hands are a big thing we look for when engaging a person. Regardless of style, if an artist wants to have relatable or engaging characters, those characters have to move and act like people, and those people need to be gesturing in a way that moves the action forward clearly and effectively.
Poses are actually more important in comics than any other visual media, as the image never changes. Every drawing you place down has to be as efficient as possible at conveying your intentions; you can’t fall back on motion to get your point across.
Body language does more than convey an emotion or an action, though, they tell us about the characters. How a character stands or emotes can tell us a lot more than what they’re actually saying, or what back story we’ve been given about them. If I’m told a character is resentful or slow to open up to people, that’s fine, but that information can be implied (or at least augmented) more viscerally through posing. If this character’s body language goes more relaxed around well-known friends to stiff or slouching when around new people, for example, we unconsciously begin to associate the correct traits with the character.
In short, how a character moves is just as important as how they are designed.
I’ll use some examples from my own comic, as the characterization in Dresden Codak isn’t overly complex.
Dmitri Tokamak’s body language is fairly straightforward. He’s reserved in both demeanor and physical motion. Partly due to his large stature, his physical gestures are subdued unless he’s compelled to actually smack someone.
His postures only start to relax when he’s pulling one over on someone or poking fun at Kim.
Alina Tokamak is Dmitri’s antithesis. Her body language is much more physically active, partly due to her small size, but also because she is more open with her enthusiasm and interests. She frequently makes physical contact with people, and only really calms down when she has no intellectual grasp of a situation.
She is extremely active around Kim, whom she knows will put up with her behavior without question.
Kim, being the protagonist, is the most developed character in Dresden Codak, and as one would expect she has a larger range of posing behaviors depending on the context of the situation. She is pensive most of the time, lost in her own thoughts, cripplingly shy, and is very submissive when dealing with new social dynamics.
When caught off guard, she shrinks. The above panel illustrates the difference in attitudes between Kim and the stranger. He is comfortable in the environment; his angles and arches are fairly straight. Kim, on the other hand, is coiled, her bubble penetrated. In reality the stranger isn’t being intrusive at all and isn’t invading her personal space (if he were, I would have stretched his pose further, and had him crossing the invisible dividing line between the two characters). This panel describes Kimiko’s behavior: an overreaction to a mundane interaction.
When Kim has an idea, it has to come out. She’s known to go on without any regardes to others’ understanding of what she’s saying, and while this is partly conveyed in dialogue, her physical behavior augments the theme. Her eyes widen, her posture shifts to a sharp angle (toward whomever she has decided to talk to) and she goes off. This behavior of Kim’s is the only one that isn’t context-specific. She will do this regardless of whether she is in the presence of a stranger.
Her posture shifts dramatically when she is in her element (generally in exploration or in her laboratory). Her mind is hard at work, and her confidence shoots up as she is occupied with unraveling a mystery. Her slouch disappears and her physical gestures more clear.
Compare Kim’s reaction at first to the Sleepwalkers:
To when she begins to explore their world by herself:
Individuals have unique ways of speaking, but their bodies exhibit “accents” as well. A tilt of the head, the placement of hands, and the direction of the spine can show the reader a lot more than telling them alone.
In my previous post, I divided comics into two camps: film and sitcom, but as I warned using terminology from other media can be deceptive. Environment-driven comics aren’t always going to look “cinematic” or even be visually elaborate, and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat is an excellent example of this. While more visually complex than, say, Peanuts, the strength of Krazy Kat’s environments is not in visual detail but its powerful sense of place.
The characters are almost exclusively viewed at a distance, at full body, as their placement within the surreal version of Coconino County is very important for both the content of each strip and presenting an overall feel for the universe. Coconino County is every bit a character as the others; remove this element and the context of the action is drastically changed. You can look at a single plant or building and almost immediately recognize that it’s a Krazy Kat strip. How many other comics can make this claim?
There’s a wide variety of approaches when it comes to environment designs in the comic medium, and although there are certain key elements that divide comics from motion media, it’s somewhat useful (in the case of environments) to place comics in two basic camps: film vs. sitcom.
Modern newspaper strips, especially the gag-driven variety, employ environment conventions similar to that of sitcoms. Sitcoms trace their origins to stage and radio performances, where the focus is very much dialogue driven. Most of the physical action is exclusively between the characters, and it’s very rare for the actors to turn their back to the audience (partially because their voices need to project in the direction of the viewer). As such, the “sitcom” variety of comic strip often employs minimal visuals when it comes to environment, as the primary goal is to deliver a verbal punchline. There are some excellent examples of this style of comic strip, though I personally feel this approach is overrepresented in American comics, especially the web variety, and it’s often employed for comic styles that don’t benefit from this minimalism.
There’s another breed of comic, however, that parallels more closely with film. Because of the nature of the medium, film is inherently (though not exclusively) more location-driven than the stage, and comics of this style in turn rely on a stronger connection between the characters and their environment. Comics are about efficiently conveying concepts and moods, and this style demands an intimate connection between reader and the world being presented by the cartoonist.
In the above page by Enrique Fernández, a significant amount of information about both the character and his environment is being conveyed. Aside from the more obvious elements like the character’s personality being conveyed through body language, there’s a lot the environment is implying. The top panel introduces a distant vanishing point behind the man, giving the impression that he’s traveled far to reach this point. The low angle of panel #2 emphasizes the height of the action as well as the potential distance (and danger) of the fall. The dark shadows and narrow spaces of panel #3 indicate a change of mood from freedom to impending danger/detection (the narrow band of “light” space cutting through the panel and the character’s silhouette is especially powerful). The final panel emphasizes that the man does not want to be seen; the wall seems to be pushing back against him, trying to shove him out of frame. We want to know what he’s looking at; we were set up with the previous panels with a sense of motion, and now though he seems to be frozen, the environment now has become the primary actor. We’re drawn in without a word of dialogue.
Fernández is also good at establishing an environment as a character unto itself.
As is the case with the above page, oftentimes a story requires that the setting be much more than a place upon which the plot unfolds, but an active participant in the antagonism or encouragement of the characters. In the end, regardless of the specific purpose, it should always be about engaging the reader, inviting them into the world you built and keeping them interested in the unraveling of the narrative.
Superhero comics, oddly enough, should benefit from this greatly but it’s rare to see it effectively employed. There tends to be an immense focus on the design and posing of the characters with very little attention paid to how those characters are interacting with the environment. Ironically, western superhero books seem to take their cues from the sitcom school, where more often than not the characters seem to be posing for a photograph that no one’s taking.
Obviously I’m not dismissing all superhero comics, but it is a dominating trend in the most popular styles. There are, however, some powerful exceptions, like the masterful Frank Quitely:
The important point here is that it’s essential to decide what tools work best for the comic at hand. Mismatching approaches is an easy mistake to make, but it can carry extensive consequences.
i point blank tell someone i use the default photoshop brushes and they reply asking where i downloaded my brushes
why do i even talk to people anymore
Usually I’ll start with a bunch of thumbnails.
Thumbnailing is a great way to keep your composition down to simple shapes and not get lost in the details. If the thumbnail doesn’t work, basing a...